Last month, I reread the five existing books of The Order of the Air series by Melissa Scott and Jo Graham. These are some of my favorite comfort reads. Parts of these period adventure-fantasies are very cozy, but aside from the wonderful characters’ mutual support, love, and humor, there are also some tense and exciting action sequences, with almost ordinary people teaming up to resist evil and try to make the world better.
From Steel Blues:
She put her hand on his arm, sleeve and flesh beneath it, warm and alive. “The world can’t be saved.”
He shrugged. “Maybe not. But what else am I doing with my life?”
No speeches. No oaths. No promises that no one could keep.
“Well,” [she] said. “If you put it that way.”
The main characters aren’t mighty heroes — though some are hot pilots, along with the archaeologist and, later, the thief/con artist — but they are quiet heroes. Many of their choices to do the right thing seem fairly small and personal in the moment, like helping some abandoned children or breaking somebody’s bad-luck curse. Some of their choices are obviously dangerous, like tracking a possessed man to try to put his demon back under control, and those sequences make for some great drama, but I also really like how the authors portray that the little things matter, too — in themselves and in their sometimes far-reaching consequences.
The series starts with Lost Things, set in 1929, and moves through the Great Depression. There are about a dozen books planned, extending through World War II. (In case you’re a completionist, Graham says that the publisher, Crossroad Press, has committed to the whole series.) As most of the characters work for an aviation firm, plots range from across the United States, including Hawaii, Italy, Egypt, and Ethiopia, so far.
It is a secret history rather than an alternate world. Most of the characters’ magic is pretty subtle, usually consisting of getting visions and casting wards, and I love how grounded it all feels. Silver Bullet has a nifty little scene where Mitch uses a lighter to try to get a hint of what his uneasiness signifies:
Mitch flicked his friendly Ronson again as if relighting his cigarette. It was a very small fire, but it was fire. It was fire you could keep in your pocket. It was fire you could have anywhere. Nobody ever thought anything about a guy lighting a cigarette. It wasn’t occult. He cupped the flame with his other hand as though keeping the wind off, feeling its miniscule warmth. Not the patterns of the past that Jerry read. Not the future as Stasi and Lewis saw it, but the patterns of the present, the warp and weft of the moment that is, all the pieces that tie together in invisible ways, pattern and synchronicity, energy flowing like fire following lines of gasoline. Show me, Mitch thought. Just a little push of energy, a bead of fire flowing down lines, a spark jumping inside an engine to begin combustion, a tiny push from him, a tiny boost from a miniature flame, part of the much greater dance of energy that was the cosmos. Show me the pattern.
Some of the characters are natural seers, and some of them are ritualists; some of them have been in their Lodge for years, and some are just starting to learn their skills. But they all rely on each other’s strengths and bridge each other’s gaps.
Not all the conflicts are magical, however. The characters are also fighting evil ideas — including racism, nascent American fascism, and prejudice against disability — by speaking up and making alliances —and occasionally blocking or undermining their enemies’ efforts by other means. The characters who are homosexual, bisexual, and/or polyamorous don’t really conceive of fighting for their rights in this era, but they live their lives in their own ways and help shield others from discovery.
Note to those who may be disappointed that the gay character in Lost Things is living a celibate life due to his former partner having died following the Great War: He does start getting some action in later books. (I’m not naming him because the new guy on the team takes a while to figure things out.) The carefully coded flirting is clever and amusing, there’s some passion, and by the fifth book, he’s hoping that his lover will stay for a long-term relationship.
In fact, the whole team is a lovely found family, which slowly grows throughout the first five books. The main characters are all adults, with the youngest being in their 30s, and I find it refreshing to read about mature people drawing on their experience yet still growing, making allowances for each other, being kind and building each other up when needed, and arguing for what they believe when that’s needed. (And sometimes arguing about small things, like the hilarious quarrel after a disastrous double date to see Grand Hotel.)
I also like that after the first book, the viewpoint shifts around a lot, so you can see how different people are each doing their best despite self-doubts. These are clearly written characters, distinct from each other, and easy to empathize with, to the point that I feel hotly indignant over some of the confrontations that they undergo because of who they are. Their victories feel hard-won and therefore all the more satisfying.
The Order of the Air books are connected to Jo Graham’s Numinous World books, including the Locus Award finalist Black Ships. Melissa Scott has written numerous other novels and won the Campbell for Best New Writer in 1986, plus several Lambda Literary Awards. All this is to say that Graham and Scott know their craft — how to research and how to plot and write. Their prose is rich in period detail, from aircraft development to actual historical people occasionally included in the action, but that never gets in the way of enjoying these great stories. It just enhances them.
I highly recommend the whole series (Lost Things, Steel Blues, Silver Bullet, Windraker, Oath Bound), but the first three volumes are available as an omnibus, which lets you see how the characters gel as a team and gives hints of how their great work of the future during World War II is going to start taking shape. As I write this, the ebook edition of the omnibus is available for $2.99 (a great deal) from both Amazon and Barnes & Noble, and all of the books are available through other fine retailers, too.
Disclaimer: A few years ago, I sent Graham a link to a nugget of North Carolina history, and she said it filled in some of Mitch’s backstory and they might use it in a flashback! I really, really want people to buy these books and encourage Scott and Graham to move the rest of the series to the front burner, so I can see if it shows up in book seven!